UCL News


Spotlight on Ann Blandford

13 July 2016

This week the spotlight is on Ann Blandford, Director, UCL Institute of Digital Health (IDH).

Ann Blandford

What is your role and what does it involve?

I'm Director of the UCL Institute of Digital Health (IDH), which was established in 2015 to facilitate interdisciplinary initiatives across UCL and to give UCL's strength in Digital Health greater external visibility. The role is still evolving; my focus to date has been on listening to colleagues across all faculties and prioritising activities that are likely to make the most positive difference for colleagues and for healthcare delivery.

I'm also Professor of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which involves all the usual professorial responsibilities (too many to list). HCI is the study of how people interact with interactive systems, including computers, smartphones, wearables and medical devices, and how those systems can be designed to be safer, more fit for purpose, and more pleasurable to use.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in 2002 and I was the Director of the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC, jointly supported by the Department of Computer Science and the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences) from 2004-2011. Previously I was a Professor in Computer Science at Middlesex University.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

To me, the most important is intangible: it's empowering other people to achieve their best. I've benefitted throughout my career from working with amazing colleagues and teachers, from whom I have learned a lot. In turn, it's great to work with colleagues and students and contribute to the development of their skills and confidence.

More tangibly, I've recently co-authored a short book on "Qualitative HCI Research: Going Behind the Scenes", which I am hoping will guide future students in doing high quality research.

When I look back from some future time, I hope that the impact created by the IDH on the health of people and populations will also feature prominently in my list.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of you to-do list?

I am loving working with others to develop the IDH. It's particularly challenging because the IDH is a virtual institute, and does not have a physical location. I want it to be of value for all staff and students across UCL who are working on digital health, whether they are primarily experts in health, in digital, or in other areas such as arts, social sciences, education or the built environment.

The IDH aims to complement the primary affiliations of researchers within their own faculties or professional groups, and enhance their abilities to work across disciplinary boundaries and creating new opportunities for people, within and beyond UCL. This is an exciting new approach; if this model can work anywhere I'm sure it'll be at UCL.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

My favourite novel is Terry Pratchett's "Equal Rites". It's not a work of Great Fiction, but it is humorously mocking of traditional university culture and gender roles. As someone who has studied and worked in a male-dominated environment since I was 16 (as a mathematician, engineer and computer scientist), the story of Esk resonates for me. In a nutshell: Esk is the 8th son of an 8th son, and so is destined to be a wizard… except for the small technicality that she is a girl, and so is disqualified from entry to the wizards' university. The story gives the account of her travels and how she makes it, supported by her mentor, Granny Weatherwax. Granny W (unequivocally a witch, not a wizard) is one of my role models.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

When one of my daughters was much younger, she went through a phase of exploring the nature of jokes, including surreal variants on a common format such as "Why did the tomato hang on the washing line?". There was never a punchline.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I enjoy dinners with family, friends and colleagues… but thinking more widely, with a bit of time-travel, I'd love to meet a few women who have forged paths for themselves in male-dominated environments. Maybe Amy Johnson, Rosalind Franklin, Emily Kelly, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie. I'm sure they all have amazing stories to tell.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Take more risks. Allow yourself to be more impetuous and impulsive. But most of all: believe in yourself; value your strengths and be more accepting of your limitations.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

Several people have expressed surprise on learning that I'm a grandmother. I am completely besotted with my grandsons - that caught me by surprise when the eldest was born, but I've embraced the feeling now.

What is your favourite place?

Any climbable British sea cliff on a sunny summer's day. Pembrokeshire, Anglesey, Dorset, Lundy, Cornwall: nothing can beat the experience of sitting on a quiet ledge with the sun beating down, the sea pounding below, sea-birds flying around, maybe seals bobbing around. A rare but utterly delightful experience.